Opinion

No diversity? The Oscars have always been a ploy to keep the powerful in power

The real world and its problems have been a thorn in the side of the Academy and its awards ceremony for 90-odd years

02 February 2020 - 00:02 By
When Bob Hope jokingly tried to wrestle an Oscar statuette away from Marlon Brando, backstage at the March 1955 Academy Awards, he was unwittingly dramatising the very purpose of the awards — keep the actors competing for the glamorous award so they have little time left to fight for equal rights and equal pay in the industry.
When Bob Hope jokingly tried to wrestle an Oscar statuette away from Marlon Brando, backstage at the March 1955 Academy Awards, he was unwittingly dramatising the very purpose of the awards — keep the actors competing for the glamorous award so they have little time left to fight for equal rights and equal pay in the industry.
Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Like many stories about the dream factory that is Hollywood, the origins tale of the Academy Awards is one that should be taken with a pinch of salt. If you do decide to take the story at surface value, however, it's a good yarn with larger than life characters whose ambitions knew no limits beyond those of their imaginations.

It goes something like this: MGM head Louis Burt Mayer - known by his friends and by those who wished to keep their jobs as Louis B - was born in 1886 as Lazar Meir in Dyen, somewhere in the Russian empire.

Raised as a poor working-class Jewish emigre on the streets of Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, Mayer quit school at age 12 to support his family, bought a vaudeville theatre in Haverhill, Massachusetts, which catered to Italian immigrants and used it to create a Boston vaudeville empire before moving west to Los Angeles.

Irving Thalberg and wife Norma Shearer with Louis B Mayer, who started the Oscars to distract Hollywood workers from forming a union.
Irving Thalberg and wife Norma Shearer with Louis B Mayer, who started the Oscars to distract Hollywood workers from forming a union.
Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Here our intrepid Louis B teamed up with the brilliant, inscrutable genius, Irving Thalberg, and the two of them jumped on the bandwagon of the madly popular new medium - movies. They created MGM, the most powerful studio in the Golden Age of the studio system.

In the roaring '20s Mayer, whose Russian-Jewish roots made him weary of working-class uprisings and gave him a nose for early signs of revolution. Hebegan to worry that a time might come when the actors, directors and writers responsible for making the dream factory's fantasy tales (and impossible but highly popular fairy tales) would one day form a union. This would mean they'd start demanding equal rights, fair pay and all the other socialist nonsense that threatened to cut into the profits of hard-working exemplars of the American Dream like himself and his fellow emigre moguls.

Louis B thought he'd get a jump on potential rabble-rousing socialist agitators by getting his other studio-head friends to form their own organisation that would make it unnecessary for their creative workers to need their own union.

The organisation would be, in the words of film critic and historian David Thomson, not so much a union, with all the terrifying socialist connotations that such a name suggested, but rather "a public relations operation that pumped out the message that Hollywood was a wonderful place where delightful and thrilling stories were made to give the folks a good time".

Mayer's fellow moguls loved the idea and jumped on board, giving it the classy name of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

As Thomson notes: "The 'Arts and Sciences' touch was genius because it made you think the Academy had always been there, dreamed up by God and Harvard and Albert Einstein."

The Academy had a banquet in 1927 during which Mayer and his friends offered membership to some of their preferred colleagues.

It was there that they hit on the idea of sealing the deal with something they knew would be a big success - an awards ceremony to honour the best work made in a given year, showing the public that they were making movies of quality which were proper, accredited works of art and not just fluff to keep hungry minds away from real problems.

Actress Glenda Jackson famously said of the Oscars: 'Nice presents for a day. But they don't make you any better'.
Actress Glenda Jackson famously said of the Oscars: 'Nice presents for a day. But they don't make you any better'.
Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The first ceremony, in 1929, was attended by around 270 people at the Roosevelt Hotel and hosted by America's swashbuckling hero Douglas Fairbanks. Here 15 gold-plated statuettes of a man holding a sword pinning down reels of film were presented to the winners during a 15-minute event.

The statuette was designed by art director Cedric Gibbons, produced by sculptor George Stanley and, in a now ironic nod to the fact that so much of what we consider as all-American is built on the backs of immigrants, was modelled on the body of Mexican director and Hollywood character actor Emilio "El Indio" Fernández.

The rest is history - whether you believe that the statuettes got their name thanks to a passing comment by the Academy's librarian, Margaret Herrick, who was heard to say that they looked like her uncle Oscar or that screen legend and future Academy president Bette Davis named them after her first husband, band leader Harmon Oscar Nelson - the awards were here to stay and the show that accompanied their presentation would grow into a dream factory production of glitz and glamour that held its own special fascination for millions around the world.

Over the last 90-odd years the awards have since mostly continued to do what Mayer hoped they would - provide a platform for the recognition of the dream machine's finest and brightest and an annual opportunity to flatter and satisfy the egos of the industry without the annoyance of politics or real-world problems getting in the way.

But every now and then the Oscars have come under fire for failing to recognise the realities of the world beyond the frame of the telecast, the high fashion, glamour and the Joan River red-carpet shenanigans of their over-hyped and much-anticipated presentation.

In 1935 screenwriter Dudley Nichols refused his award for The Informer in protest against the Academy's failure to recognise the Screen Writers' Guild - one of the first organisations to establish itself more in the vein of the pesky unions Mayer had hoped to head off.

In 1971 George C Scott refused to accept his award for Patton, citing his long-held belief that competitions which pitted hard-working actors against each other were nonsensical.

And, of course, there was the infamous moment in 1973 when rather than do the right thing and bathe in the glory of his accolade, Marlon Brando sent an Apache actress named Sacheen Littlefeather to accept his statuette for The Godfather on his behalf, only to tell the shocked audience that he wouldn't be taking it home in protest against the film industry and the government's treatment of Native Americans. This pissed off conservative Academy stalwarts like Clint Eastwood and John Wayne.

Marlon Brando continued to scrape away at the surface allure of the Oscars in 1973 when he refused to accept his Oscar in person, instead sending Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather to accept it on his behalf.
Marlon Brando continued to scrape away at the surface allure of the Oscars in 1973 when he refused to accept his Oscar in person, instead sending Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather to accept it on his behalf.
Image: Hulton Archive/ Getty Images

In spite of Mayer's original intentions that the Oscars help to maintain the status quo and stave off threats to the power of the moguls through the opiate glamour and aspirational envy of their luxurious presentation, the real world and its problems continue to be a thorn in the side of the Academy and its awards ceremony.

There have been occasional, easy to brush off, though nevertheless annoying infiltrations of politics into the theatre on awards night - like the time in 1999 when, during the presentation of the Irving Thalberg Lifetime Achievement Award to 89-year-old director Elia Kazan, many of those present refused to applaud because of his decision in the 1950s to rat on his leftist Hollywood friends to Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee.

That kind of thing could easily be excused by the Academy as a matter of personal opinion and freedom of expression but recently the backlash against the Academy and its refusal to change its ways has been harder to ignore.

The manipulation of votes through the greasing of palms and the stroking of egos has been an accepted practice since at least the late '60s, when actor Cliff Robertson launched an advertising campaign highlighting the use of advertising campaigns by studios to curry favour for the awards (a practice later perfected and used to great effect by Miramax bully and sex-pest-in-chief Harvey Weinstein).

Still, the Academy has gone to great lengths to maintain that it's a democratic institution made up of industry members who vote for their peers and ensure that the results of the process are purely meritocratic.

Yet in 2015 the #OscarsSoWhite campaign placed pressure on the Academy to recognise that it had a diversity problem and, in the light of the #MeToo scandals that have rocked Hollywood over the last few years, Tinsel Town has been forced to admit it also has a problem when it comes to the treatment and equal recognition of women in the industry.

The Reverend Al Sharpton, right, speaks about the lack of diversity among the nominees at the 2016 Academy Awards at a rally before the awards.
The Reverend Al Sharpton, right, speaks about the lack of diversity among the nominees at the 2016 Academy Awards at a rally before the awards.
Image: J Countess/WireImage via Getty Images

Lately, Mayer's baby has been forced to make some changes and accept that it isn't, despite how it likes to see itself, a shining beacon of fairness.

These concerns have led to the organisation increasing its membership, opening its doors to a record number of females and people of colour from across the world - a move heralded as a significant step in the right direction and yet, when you look at this year's nominations, it doesn't feel like they've done enough.

Only one person of colour, actress Cynthia Erivo, has been nominated in any of the Oscars' traditionally coveted major categories. And while director Greta Gerwig's much acclaimed adaptation of Little Women earned a Best Picture nod, Gerwig was still denied a Best Director nomination.

Not to mention the fact that several significant films by a variety of non-white, non-male filmmakers were completely ignored.

Only one person of colour, actress Cynthia Erivo, has been nominated in any of the Oscars' traditionally coveted major categories in 2020

Once again Mayer's dream of ensuring that the Academy Awards serve as a panacea to the rumbling currents of the disaffection of the real world continues to play out. And while many critics write reams about the injustices and oversights of this year's nominations, it's unlikely that anyone will be refusing their statues in protest come February 9. The allure of the Oscar is still too great.

Perhaps the winners would do well to remember two-time winner actress Glenda Jackson's 20-20-hindsight observation: "My mother polishes them to within an inch of their lives until the metal shows. That sums up the Academy Awards - all glitter on the outside and base metal coming through. Nice presents for a day. But they don't make you any better."

• This year's Oscars ceremony took place on February 9. It will be aired on M-Net at 9pm.


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